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State Sen. Bill Turner sat on the stage in Liberty City's Caleb Center for two hours last month holding a sign that called for unity among Democrats. He hoped to say a few words to the crowd. After all, he was -- and is -- the incumbent in the September 1 primary.
"I never got to speak," Turner complains. He contends U.S. Congresswoman Carrie Meek used her influence to prevent it. That would be the same Carrie Meek whose son Kendrick is vying for Turner's seat.
Turner, a former teacher who spent twenty years on the Dade County School Board before winning his Senate seat six years ago, is facing his toughest challenge yet. Kendrick Meek has raised far more cash than Turner, and campaign signs picturing Meek's round face fill the contested north Dade district that covers some of Florida's neediest neighborhoods.
Given his lengthy political background, the 67-year-old Turner is oddly cast as a political underdog, yet that's the role he's playing these days. The reason is neither Meek's experience nor his savvy strategy. Meek, who is 31 years old, has spent a mere four years as a state representative. He was a cop before that. The key reason the young challenger has garnered the advantage is his mother, according to Turner and his supporters. Her considerable power and reputation have already swayed some voters.
In 1992 Carrie Meek, age 72, became the first black person elected to Congress from South Florida since Reconstruction. For fourteen years before that she served in the state legislature. Her son is perturbed by the Turner campaign's claims that Carrie Meek has meddled. "It's not true," says Kendrick Meek. "They have got to stop using that as an excuse."
"Of course it's true. I haven't been able to raise any money," Turner retorts, saying that the elder Meek has discouraged donors from contributing greenbacks to his campaign. In a report filed with the state in June, Turner reported having raised about $90,000. Meek had lapped him, snagging $213,000. A third candidate, Haitian-American businessman Raymond Emmanuel, had collected only $2400. While both Turner and Meek received out-of-state donations, Meek gathered far more -- from places like Texas and Georgia -- including a $500 check from the committee to re-elect New York Congressman Charles Rangel.
There's a lot at stake in this hotly contested primary race. District 36 includes all of Liberty City and parts of Little Haiti, Carol City, and Opa-locka -- some of the county's poorest and most crime-wracked communities. The winner will face little-known Republican candidate Joe Celestine in November. In other words, the primary victor will almost certainly win the seat.
Carrie Meek denies having interfered with Turner's appearance at the Caleb Center. As for the donations, her son is a "better fundraiser than me," she says, adding that Turner is acting like a "crybaby ... He's been in politics as long as I have. He should rely on his record. Instead he has to run his campaign on me. That's the lowest form of politics, to use the [opponent's] mother."
The two candidates' biographies couldn't be more different.
Meek's rise has been meteoric. After graduating from Florida A&M University in 1989, he joined the highway patrol. Slightly more than two years later Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay chose the beefy young officer as his personal bodyguard. With that move came a promotion to captain (Meek was the first and youngest black person in that spot) as well as rumors that he was tapped because of his mother's connections. "I was a loyal Democrat and I was qualified, and that's why I got it," Meek says. "Ever since I invited Buddy MacKay and Lawton Chiles to speak to college Democrats, I have been associated with the party."
In contrast, Turner has been playing politics for nearly 30 years. And he has stumbled several times along the way. So far this year the Miami Herald has written stories about Turner receiving two (instead of the legally allowed one) homestead exemptions on properties, and about a federal probe into whether he got kickbacks for trying to win a contract for a local businessman to advertise the state lottery on his billboards. No charges have been filed.
"That lottery story was much ado about nothing," says Turner's campaign manager Bob Levy. "The question is, did he use his office to get work for a local businessman? Politicians do that all the time; they get business for local people." Levy believes Carrie Meek may have prompted the inquiry. "Let's not forget who the feds work for," he says.
And there is the 1995 allegation that Turner beat up his then-wife, whom he later divorced. Those charges were dropped after the senator agreed to attend counseling. Despite his setbacks, Turner's long record of public service has earned him respect throughout Miami's black community.
In fact, to some politicos Meek's challenge seems bad form. Turner announced last year this would be his last campaign. "I just thought Kendrick running against Mr. Turner in his last term is a sign of disrespect," says Victor Curry, a pastor and the general manager of the black-oriented radio station WMBM-AM (1490). "The man is a senior statesman."